FEATURE: Getting to the Heart of Lykke Li

Getting to the Heart of Lykke Li

Lykke Li
Photographer Leonie Purchas
December 13, 2010

Lykke Li has been in Stockholm almost nine months, her longest stay in years, and she's dying to get out. She's been working here on her second album with Bjorn Yttling, of Peter Bjorn and John, because he has a new baby and needs to stay put. Li's apartment is a sparsely furnished one-room flat in the fashionable Södermalm district, its sole contents a bed, a small table with two chairs, a stereo, a mirror, a cowskin rug and an upright black piano. On top of the piano there are books by Paulo Coelho, Joan Didion and Leonard Cohen, a photo of her dad in India with long hair and a beard, and a random assortment of Polaroids from her promotional shoot the day before lean on a vinyl copy of Prince's Lovesexy. In the photos she is dressed as several different characters: gold-chained tough, red-bobbed vixen and stern sophisticate, among others. Right now, though, she is pacing in a big black sweater and bare legs, working the phones to get a last minute costume made for the video of her first single. She will be shot on green screen and superimposed over kaleidoscopic images from an obscure B-movie about Amazon women spliced together by a Swedish video artist who normally specializes in political conspiracy films. Even in the current frenzied moments, it's clear she is in complete control of everything she does and says, whether on record or in real life, and is determined to show everyone who she really is. Here's what she is not: a Swedish pop star, a puppet, a victim, an innocent.

Lykke Li is not afraid to play these roles when they suit her, especially if it means subverting the image that most held of her after her debut album, Youth Novels. She was cute, blonde and coquettish, and at times, her songs sounded more like timid whispers than the expressions of a full-grown woman, probably because she hadn't yet become one. In the four years since she recorded that album, Li has toured endlessly, made it through a crushing breakup that drove her to write new songs and learned, as Yttling says, that "the world cannot be conquered on a whisper."

The new album, Wounded Rhymes, reflects her maturity in ways both obvious and not. She is really singing now, in a clear and emotive, honeyed purr, and her lyrics speak of tragic love, longing and disappointment. The music she has written with Yttling is tougher and more muscular, less about light melodies than forceful rhythm. She wanted it to sound like "Link Wray meets Ethiopiques meets The Shangri-Las," raw and passionate, and it does. But beneath these outward transformations is a growing artistic force, a woman who seems capable of everything she puts her mind to, which could be anything. She may have outgrown Stockholm, but she was never really from here anyway, a child expat of two cult musician parents who decided to move the family to Portugal when she was only seven on a mission to live a freer existence and traveled frequently to seek enlightenment. The instability was tough on her, but Li is better off for the challenge.

There is a Swedish word that has no direct English translation, but roughly means that every person should strive toward the middle—never be too ambitious or too satisfied. It explains their appearance of cool perfection to the outside world, whether in regards to pop music or perfect style. Before a Swede can make it big, she must pass through a gauntlet that lifts her up while gently holding her down. Lykke Li sidestepped instead, and it's her imperfections that make her exceptional. Over meatballs and lingonberries, she explained exactly how she got here.

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I've been exhausted. You just tour the same record for so long. I didn't want to do anything. And then I went to LA, and I rented this little cabin. I bought an autoharp. I was just sitting totally in a cabin with candles and an autoharp and being like, I'm so heartbroken. I didn't have a driver's license, so I was just walking around, and I had so much time to think about the record and to build a plan. I just felt so strong, and that I was on a path and I couldn't turn back, no matter how painful it is. So I came back to Sweden and I'm like, I'm going to make the master record, and I'm going to make everything right that I did wrong the last time. I came back with a vision, I gathered all the band. We were going to have four-day sessions in Atlantis [Studios]. We were just going to do it live, Bob Dylan style. And then I completely freaked. It was too much for me. I had a total meltdown in the studio. I was in tears, like choking, I couldn't sing. I was like, Oh my god I can't do this, it's too early. I've had to a lot of my darlings and be like, This is my vision, this is my dream, this is my intention, but this is reality, this what I have and this is who I am right now. I'm quite young, I guess, so I'm still searching for ways to live, trying out stuff.

You have to be ready for that, a love that's not immediate, that's just warm and it's just there.

I feel very suffocated when I'm around people all the time. I really had to learn real early that I couldn't count on anybody for anything, so I've been a loner all my life, like really strong, because nobody's going to give me shit. I've been too much like that, I don't trust people and I don't depend on them. Almost cold, maybe. But now I've been experiencing not only relationships, but friends and people, and I've been learning that it's okay to miss them. When you're always touring it's going to be really painful if you miss people all the time. So you just have friends everywhere, you can't be too attached. This life is bad for relationships. But I've learned to try to depend on a few people, stay in touch with people more. When I was in America for a very long time, I didn't talk to anybody here, so they're like, She's gone. I can be here, and nobody knows I'm here, I'm like a leaf in the wind. I would stay in New York and LA, and I wouldn't get in touch with people. I would just be floating around, doing really stupid stuff. And I would just feel like if something happened right now, I was just rootless. It was scary. When everything was done, like I'm not going to do one more show, just leave me alone for awhile, I just realized that I was in the exact same situation personally that I was when it all started, like when I was 17. I was like, Man, I need to change some things. It's been a really painful process. I don't want to be like, This album has been like therapy—it's not really, I go to therapy, too. But it was a really painful start to the album. The whole process has been kill-ing me. I haven't been able to sleep. I've been manic, like waking up in the middle of the night like, It's not good enough.

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It's all very personal. Although I've been so busy and not having time, I just got involved in this really interesting situation—a love kind of thing—that I never expected. I always had the feeling, all my life, I'm always so brokenhearted. It happened to me once when I was 19, 20. I was like, Yeah this is shit, but this guy couldn't hurt me that bad. How could this one person hurt me that much? So I went to this psychic, and she said, "You were born with a broken heart." And I was like, Really? Because I knew that. So I'm born with a broken heart, and then somebody breaks my heart again, and then when I think there's no way I can get brokenhearted again, it really happens again, like super happens again. I put up all these shields, and then I was willing to jump. I'll run for it, because love is dangerous, when it's real it's dangerous. And then I crash. So when I was in Bermuda, on a beach, on the water, and I was really sad, like, I hate myself I want to die, I just felt like the most stupid person ever. How could I be so selfish? At the same time, every man's suffering is their own suffering, so I thought, Wow, I'm suffering from rich kid's blues I think. There's a few basic needs that everybody needs, and if one of them is not fulfilled, you don't feel good. You know, food, water, shelter, but also a place of belonging and a home, and a feeling that you mean something special to somebody and somebody means something special to you, a connection. No matter how rich you are, if you don't have that, it's the same thing as being a homeless kid with nothing to eat. [You] need to be close to another heart. So as selfish as it sounds, being on a beach in Bermuda, if you still don't have a home or someone that's there, it's painful. And also the feeling that I think a lot of people suffer from, that we have everything, there's so much going on, but there's this numbness. And I was starting to fantasize, like, what's death? Where is that? Is that a place that could be better? Like there's a place where the highs won't hurt, and it won't come down again, it was just going to be high. So that song "I Know Places," it's basically like, follow me there, because I know this place where it's high all the time, it's on the other side. So it's a dark thing, although it doesn't sound like it. A lot of it is almost like a siren of death. I've been having this ocean feeling a lot, a lot of the songs talk about water and rivers, like where does that river lead? And it's good, it just flows and then you die.

If you listen to somebody, you can hear their secrets. What is her biggest secret, her biggest wound? I say everything, but at the same time, that's like a sacred space. I wouldn't say that in real life, when I'm hanging out with somebody. But I'm not interested in doing anything else with my music. When I'm really putting myself on the line, that's the only time it resonates with me. I don't know any other way. If I'm going to be doing a lot of records really quickly, I guess this is not the way, because I can't do that all the time. So maybe my next record's not going to come in forever, like ten years or something. Or maybe I'll do it right away. You have to find your wound at the time. And you can't just have wound, wound, wound all the time and then sunshine, because then the wound gets even bigger.

It's hard when you're used to love being so dramatic, so many obstacles, but it's so painful and it's so destructive. I had to teach myself, the next guy I'm going to have is going to be fucking a good man to me, he's going to treat me good. That's hard to recognize, when you're standing in front of a good person. You have to be ready for that, a love that's not immediate, that's just warm and it's just there. I realize there are different stages—love, lust and infatuation, and that's the most dangerous one that I experience, like obsession. It feels so much, but it's bullshit. And then love, which is something that is like a warmth between you. I went into this record walking around New York, crying. I went to the movies by myself, like smoking inside and they're like, You have to go out and I'm like, Unnnhhh nooo. And now my record is done, and it's really strange because I have to revisit old things. Right now I'm fine. I've never ever been fine. I'm just saying this now, I'm fine now. Who knows what will happen in a week, but today it's fine.

I've been working [for a year and a half] in my head and in my soul. This has been like the inhale before the exhale. I've discovered some things about me. I used to party a lot on tour and do all kinds of things, but then I got really sick and I had to go on this cleanse. I couldn't drink alcohol, eat any meat or sugar. I was on this health binge. So I did that at the same time I was in LA riding the bus, and it was cool. But it didn't work, because I was emotionally jetlagged. I had no energy. I just got even more sick and more tired, and was just like, Oh my god, there's no end to this. I'm so fucking old and I'm so young. The way I think I should handle it is just to have a lot of fun. Like having a good laugh or having amazing fucking sex with somebody is worth more than a fucking health cleanse or therapy. So I've just been having fun instead, and now I'm feeling so much better. I'm back on track, ready to be destroyed again.

FEATURE: Getting to the Heart of Lykke Li